Strangely enough, it’s easier for me to write this post about Rumple today than it would have been a month ago. For years I’ve been asking Once Upon A Time to do exactly what they did in the midseason finale – choose. Not just lean one way or the other, but tell me, in unequivocal terms if I’m supposed to love the man or the beast. Don’t try to sell me the redeemed version of Rumple unless you’re willing to go full out good guy who gives up everything for love. Don’t go Full Dark One unless you’re ready to go really, really dark and say goodbye to the love story.
Figure out who this man really is, and then let it play out.
When I wrote about Zelena, I said you don’t really need a character to be good to love them, and that holds especially true for Rumple. We can and often do love a villain. It might be hard to really care for him if your favorite character is Hook, Neal or even Belle, for example, the people he’s wronged the most, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad character, no. If anything, it means he’s a good one.
He’s, after all, the one that makes the story advance. He might not be the main character, but he is, without a doubt, at the center of everything that happens.
First, he manipulates the Evil Queen into casting the curse so he can go look for his son. He also makes Emma the savior (his own personal loophole) and manages to secure a pretty stable alter-ego in Storybrooke. And that’s before the show even starts! He keeps his scheming in the background during the first few seasons, letting Regina take both the lead and the blame, but through it all, even when it doesn’t seem like it, Rumplestitskin has always been in control.
That’s both the best thing about him, and the worst.
In a way, you can say, and the show has said, that Rumple’s true love is not Belle, but power. Except perhaps, that’s looking at it lightly. It’s not just power he craves, but control. Power/Magic, that’s the means to an end. Above all things, Rumple wants to avoid going back to that scared man whose wife left him and whose son wouldn’t stay with him. Everything he does, he does because he can’t imagine feeling that hopeless again. Sure, he wants the magic, but he wants it as a way to control his own destiny.
Well, and other’s.
For all his villainess, however, Rumple has never been an evil for the sake of evil villain. Regina, at her worst, and Zelena, at her best, have both been more destructive for the sake of destruction than Rumple. There’s usually more brains than brawn to our favorite Dark One, though. That’s probably why he’s our favorite.
Or maybe it’s because of Robert Carlyle.
Most times you fall in love with a character first, an actor second. Maybe you fall in love with both at once. Sometimes the actor is so good at bringing to life the character that you can’t help but be hooked. And then there’s the Rumple/Robert Carlyle conundrum.
When Once Upon A Time started I wanted to love Rumple because, well, who doesn’t love Robert Carlyle? You only have to watch him for approximately five minutes to decide that he’s a) a brilliant actor, and b) a brilliant actor. That’s it. He makes everything better just by existing. He also makes his scene-partners up their game. That’s what great actors do. But then, there was something about Rumple. There still is. Something that’s half actor/half writing. Something fun. Something relatable. Just something.
And that’s the thing about Rumplestiltskin. That’s the thing about Once Upon A Time. It’s easier to dismiss a one-dimensional character that’s badly written. But heroes with hang-ups, villains who love, really love? Those are the reasons you continue watching a show, week after week.
So, yes, I’m thankful for Rumplestilstkin, and for the wonderful actor who plays him. I’m thankful, even when I want to throttle him. I’m thankful even when he makes the wrong choice (which is like, 87% of the time). I’m thankful because he’s weak, and scared, and human. And that’s better than the Rumplestiltskin of my childhood. That’s better than most villains.
I’m thankful that I’ll now presumably get to see his more villainous side. I’m thankful that I we got to experience him as a hero, even for a little while. And I’m thankful for the love story, even if, in this case, he doesn’t get a happy ending.
Villains, after all, never ever do.
Once Upon A Time returns to ABC with new episodes on Sunday March 6th, 2016.